By Casey Neill
A program that keeps Dandenong youths out of jail will end on 1 July.
Federal Government funding for not-for-profit Youthlaw will drop by $72,000 next financial year – the cost of its outreach program.
Youthlaw outreach lawyer Karen Chibert met with Isaacs MP and Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus at Headspace Dandenong on Wednesday 12 April.
She explained that the program had helped about 760 vulnerable young people during its two years, including about 50 in Dandenong and surrounds.
“Each of those 50 people would have three (different) legal issues,” she said.
Youthlaw is based in the Melbourne CBD.
Ms Chibert travels to nine Headspace and community centres across the state to connect with young people “who arguably wouldn’t otherwise receive assistance elsewhere”.
Without the outreach program, those young people face a trip to Melbourne for help.
“All the relationships built up between Youthlaw and headspace and other services would come to nothing,” she said.
“That would be a real shame.
“The take-up by the workers from Headspace has grown exponentially.”
Ms Chibert said the program was operating at capacity and there was even a gap in service for the eastern suburbs.
She said young people who’d been assisted through the outreach program told Youthlaw they would have ended up in jail without it or would have racked up huge debt to fund a lawyer.
She said the service was specifically for vulnerable young people who were dealing with issues of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and homelessness.
“What we do a lot is try to get young people on a diversionary program,” she said.
“It unclogs the court system.”
Mr Hill said solving their legal issues allowed the young people to seek help for their other problems, potentially breaking them free from a downward spiral.
Using Headspace as a base meant young people could deal with multiple problems in one visit to one location, he said, saving taxpayer money.
Mr Hill said a Productivity Commission report found that every dollar invested into the community legal system returned at least $17 or $18 in economic benefit.
“These tiny amounts of money that help address those critical issues for the community are so important,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Attorney-General said the government supported the legal assistance sector and was providing substantial funding to frontline services to help those who needed it most.
They said this included more than $1.6 billion for legal aid, community legal centres and Indigenous legal assistance between 2015 and 2020, plus $45 million for frontline legal assistance services as part of a $200 million investment to reduce violence against women and children.
“This is new money for new services,” the spokesperson said.
They said that when the Labor Party was in government, Mr Dreyfus as Attorney-General allocated the Youthlaw funding and set a 30 June 2017 expiry date.
“This is the ‘Dreyfus funding cliff’ – a direct result of decisions the former Attorney-General made but now, with trademark hypocrisy, criticises,” the spokesperson said.
“Commonwealth funding for YouthLaw (Vic) has more than doubled since 2010.”